Thursday, 19 December 2013

DreadBall Deluxe, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

Last week we stepped back into the world of board game/tabletop system hybrids as we took a look at the box contents for DreadBall; the futuristic sports game from Mantic Games.  Today we're going to run our two teams out onto the pitch and find out just how well it fares as a standalone board game, or if it should be confined to the collections of tabletop hobbyists.

The DreadBall starter box comes with two teams: The Trontek 29ers and The Greenmoon Smackers.  Of course players can paint their miniatures up in the default colour schemes and use these exact teams, but it's always good fun to come up with your own ideas, giving a little more personal investment in the 8 brave warriors of the sport who are being pummelled for your own amusement.  With this in mind our DreadBall Deluxe boxset has given rise to two new giants: The Cybertron Sentinels and The Arkham Outcasts!

The Cybertron Sentinels!

The Arkham Outcasts!  Okay we've only painted one so far, but orange is time-consuming, okay?
Both teams have a very different set of attributes which result in very different gaming experiences (which we'll come to in more detail later), so once players have decided which team they'll be fielding, it's time to set up the board.

Board set-up in DreadBall takes mere seconds, which is very refreshing when you look at many specialist board games on the market.  Once the board is opened up the score marker needs to be placed on the '0' point of the score track (shown along the bottom side of the board above), and the turn marker needs to be placed on '01' on the turn track (shown along the top side).  This concludes board setup!  Doesn't that make a lovely change?

Players must then decide who will be fielding the home team, and who will be the visitors.  This is decided randomly, so can be done either by dice-rolling or by one player randomly selecting the Home Fans or Away Fans card.  The home team will set their team up on the blue side of the board and use the blue dice from the set, with the away team following suit on the red side and with the red dice.  You may notice that the turn track is coloured to match these sides - this is because the home team always takes the first turn in DreadBall, after which play alternates until the final turn is played by the away team (unless one team has romped home with a 7 point clear victory before then).  Both teams also start with one coaching dice (a white dice), and one randomly-dealt card from the deck.  The remaining deck is placed face-down at the side of the board, and the remaining white dice placed to one side as well - these will be used to determine the referee's rolls when she's called upon to settle a dispute!  The number of starting cards and coaching dice varies from one team to the next across the DreadBall hobby, but the two teams in the balanced starter box begin with one of each.  Fair's fair after all!

The two teams each consist of 8 players, but the Deluxe box comes with an added bonus: two more players for each side.  This basically gives the players the options of customising their lineups a little, tailoring to more aggressive gameplay or allowing for speedier hit-and-run style strikes.  For new players though it's best to start with the basic lineup, and the rulebook contains the starting player lists for both of the featured teams.

There are three types of players in DreadBall: Guards, Strikers and Jacks.  All three of these feature in the 29ers, but the Smackers only contain Guards and Jacks.  A Guard is a big bruiser of a player, unable to pick up the ball themselves but good for Slamming (the DreadBall equivalent of a tackle) opposing players and causing some serious injuries.  Strikers are the nimble players who score most of the points.  They can't Slam, but can throw like demons and are great at dodging those hard tackles.  Jacks don't specialise in any one area, being able to Slam and take possession of the ball.  They're not as good as Guards or Strikers in their respective fields, but an all-rounder can be helpful when the time is right!
The Trontek 29ers team is quite Striker-heavy, meaning that it's a good team for making swift runs into the opponent's half to score those vital points.  The Greenmoon Smackers, on the other hand, have much tougher Guards and in greater number, which makes them a team best suited to knocking down your opponent's players, leaving an empty pitch for the Jacks to work their scoring magic on.

Of the 8 players in each team, only 6 are allowed on the pitch at any one time.  These 6 must be set up inside their respective halves before the game begins, with the 2 remaining players starting on the substitutes' bench.  DreadBall is a very physical game, so don't worry, they'll be on the pitch with their chance to shine before you know it!

Steve Batman of The Arkham Outcasts shakes a threatening fist at Megatron and the rest of The Cybertron Sentinels!
Once players have set up their teams and the ref-bot has been placed on her starting space, it's time to launch the ball and begin the game!

Each turn in DreadBall is referred to as a "Rush", and Rushes alternate between players.  This means that you don't have to worry about your opponent messing with your best laid plans during your turn, but it also means that by the end of your turn you need to have your players positioned and prepared for anything your opponent may throw at you during their Rush.
In a player's Rush they may take up to a total of 5 actions, and they can keep track of these using their player tokens.  In addition to this 5 action limit, each individual player on the team may only take up to 2 actions, which is a good way of preventing a player from heaping actions onto a single member of their team and dashing across the field to score easy points!  That said, lucky dice-rolling can reward players with free actions which do not count towards either of these limits, which can allow moments of sporting heroism to creep into the game.  Indeed, in one of our review games we had a player jump off the subs bench and sprint the full length of the pitch to score the game-winning points in a move worthy of any inspirational sporting film!
On top of these, cards can be played to give players further free actions, or can even put an ongoing effect into play which can affect the entire flow of the game.
A player's Rush ends when they have no further action points to spend, or when they lose possession of the ball, either from a missed shot, a failed attempt to pick up the ball, or a fumbled catch.  When this happens the turn immediately moves along to the other player, regardless of how many action points the active player had remaining.

Actions can include the likes of movement, Slamming, picking up the ball, and throwing it as either a pass or attempt to score.  DreadBall mostly operates on an easy-to-remember 3D6 system, so to find out if your action has been a success then you must roll 3 dice against your player's relevant stat (speed/skill/strength) and add up the number of successes.  If you do especially well at that action then it often leads to a free action and the chance to capitalise on your success, whereas a failure at an action can put you on the back foot and leave you having to rethink your entire turn.   This does let the random element play a large role in DreadBall, but both players are in the same boat on this front, and victory will usually go to the player who can best adapt their plans when the dice gods heap them with misfortune!
Whilst the system is usually 3D6, there are various modifiers which can increase or decrease the dice total.  For example a Guard excels at smashing their opponents, so they roll one extra dice when Slamming.  Strikers, on the other hand, are nimble, so they gain an extra dice when throwing, catching, or dodging a Slam.  If the throwing player is adjacent to one of the front 3 sides of an opponent's base then that throw becomes trickier to pull off, so they roll one less dice.  Then there are the coaching dice, mentioned earlier, which are earned through exciting and crowd-pleasing behaviour, and can be added to any dice roll to improve the odds off success.
These modifiers may seem hard to keep track of at first glance, but they do make logical sense when picturing DreadBall as the energetic sport it's meant to be, and after a couple of games the dice-rolling becomes second nature, and the gameplay quickly becomes very fluid.

The Cybertron Sentinels' No.8 Striker - Rumble - goes for a 2 point strike!
In spite of its violent nature, DreadBall is ultimately a sports game, and so victory lies in scoring more points than your opponent.  Each side of the pitch has 3 highlighted scoring zones.  The two zones closest to the half-way line are worth 1 or 2 points each (the higher score for the longer-distance throws), and the zone furthest into each player's half is worth 3 or 4 points.  The scoring system in DreadBall works on a slider, so if your opponent is 2 points ahead and you score a 3 pointer, you go into the lead by 1 point.  If your opponent then scores 1, the score resets to 0.  If one side reaches 7 points then they win the game outright, otherwise the team in the lead by the end of the 14th Rush is declared the victor!

This covers the basics of DreadBall fairly neatly.  There are more subtle nuances and additional rules which we haven't gone into here in order to keep this article at a readable length, so to experience them first hand you'll just have to take a trip to your FLGS and find out what all the fuss is about!

So just how does DreadBall Deluxe work as a board game, rather than an introduction to a gaming system?
Well obviously there is the building and painting element to the game, so this may put off potential players who don't have the tabletop feather in their hobby cap.  However, construction only takes a couple of hours and with a simple colour scheme a fully painted team can be quickly accomplished - whilst we are labouring slowly over Arkham Outcasts, the Cybertron Sentinels took us just one night to paint the entire team.
Unlike some board game/tabletop crossovers, DreadBall does come with everything needed to play the game in the box, although this is where the Kick-Off and Deluxe boxes differ.  Kick-Off contains the two teams of 8 players, the pitch, a basic rulebook, a single ball and two sets of dice.  Deluxe contains those two extra players for each team to add a bit of variety, and a spare ball just in case the first one falls foul of a vacuum cleaner or some similar menace.  It also includes the full rulebook, including rules for running leagues, the ref-bot, the DreadBall cards, and the extra set of dice.  These differing box contents both allow DreadBall to be played as a stand-alone board game straight out of the box, but obviously Deluxe gives a more complete experience, as well as being the better starting point for players wishing to take up DreadBall as a system rather than just a board game.  Mantic have released an expansion kit, however, so if players wish to upgrade from Kick-Off to Deluxe then they can buy this pack to add all of those additional parts to their collection.
As a game, DreadBall is quick to learn and smooth to play, with the 3D6 system taking very little time to get used to.  The different nature of the two teams allows for a bit of variety in gameplay - the speed and scoring prowess of the human team versus the brutal nature of the hard-hitting orcs - which is further added to with the Deluxe sets extra players, giving a degree of customisation to the starting lineups.  The fact that DreadBall is based on dice rolling does mean that random chance plays a role in events, but spread across 14 turns this usually balances out, and with some tactical adjustment and on-the-spot thinking the unluckier moments can be turned around fairly effectively.

One slight criticism of the set is directed firmly at the rulebook.  During the learning process for any game, referring to the rulebook is a frequent occurrence, and so most games come with a quick reference guide, or at the very least an index.  DreadBall comes with neither of these, and so any rules queries during those first couple of games do require some furious flicking back and forth between pages.  Mantic have spotted this shortfall to their credit, and the Season 3 rulebook contains a quick reference card at the back of the book, outlining the modifiers for each dice roll, and the outcome.  Unfortunately we're looking at DreadBall as a standalone game, and so this counts against them in the grand scheme of things.
The other downside to the game is that it's firmly for 2 players, so doesn't work as a group game on large games nights.  Again, Mantic have addressed this with the release of the chaotic DreadBall Ultimate expansion, which allows for up to 6 teams at once, but as a standalone board game Kick-Off/Ultimate doesn't benefit from this.

The Good Points
  • DreadBall features a fairly simple mechanic, but which is offset by enough modifiers to allow for a tactical element to the game.
  • The starter box comes with everything needed to get going with the game, rather than "almost everything" as some board/tabletop hybrids favour.
  • The two featured teams are different enough to create differing tactical challenges, and the additional players in the Deluxe box allow for a nice variety in the team listings.
  • Assembly time on the miniatures is mercifully short, and once built it's always fun to come up with names and themes for your very own teams.
The Bad Points
  • The DreadBall rulebook really could use a quick reference card, and beginners' games will be slowed considerably by the number of return visits to the rulebook.
  • Without investing in the additional Ultimate expansion, DreadBall is for 2 players only, preventing it from being a large, social game.
  • The idea of having to build and paint the miniatures may put some potential players off.
Recommended Number of Players: 2
As mentioned, DreadBall can only be played by 2 players, so this is a requirement rather than a recommendation.

Average Game Time: 60 minutes
Whilst some games of DreadBall can flash past in the blink of an eye due to some lucky dice rolls and top-notch player placement, most games run for the better part of an hour.  The 14 Rush cap on the game generally prevents play from going on much longer than this, so DreadBall is one of the games on the market which mercifully does not drag.

Replay Value: High
DreadBall is a fast and furious game, and does leave players wanting more.  Whether it's a desire for revenge against a crushing defeat, or the hope to recreate a dazzling victory, the DreadBall pitch does generally call players back.  The ability to vary the lineup and surprise opponents with cards in the Deluxe set add to the replay factor, and the chance to switch between teams for different tactical challenges help to keep the game from stagnating.

The Future: Bright
Being a tabletop system as well as a board game, there is a lot of DreadBall on the market for players wishing to expand their playing options.  In addition to the two featured in the box, there are 10 other teams which can be purchased seperately, as well as star players which can be used to boost existing teams.  On top of these there's also the DreadBall Ultimate expansion, turning the game into a group event for up to 6 players.

Price: £50 Deluxe (£30 Kick-Off)
The DreadBall Deluxe boxset will set you back roughly £50, which is starting to get towards the top end range as far as board games go.  Kick-Off, on the other hand, is a more pocket-friendly £30.  It should be noted that both sets give good value for money, so it really boils down to how far players want to take the plunge into the world of DreadBall.  Most gaming stores should stock it as a standard item, being a main system from one of the big names in tabletop gaming, but even if they don't keep it on the shelves it should be easy to order in.


Tea consumed during this review: None! Douwe Egberts caramel coffee with milk and 2 sweeteners. Brew rating 9.5/10

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